- Chapter Ten : Imperial and External Relations
Laurier did not wish to be consulted on British policy in Europe, because the consultation, never satisfactory in itself, would commit Canada in the future. He was in agreement with Asquith, who in the same Conference had remarked that authority in foreign policy could not be shared. It must rest with the British Government. If that Government made a decision which resulted in war, ipso facto Canada was at war. But she was absolutely free to decide what part if any she should take in the actual hostilities. The position may have seemed illogical, but the motive behind it has substantially continued to influence Canadian policy in intra-imperial matters to the present day. Canada as a North American community had special interests requiring the first consideration of her statesmen. The protection of these interests depended on a policy of limited liability, and to this policy Laurier ever subscribed. In the debate on the Naval Service Bill of 1910 he had remarked: " I do not pretend to be an imperialist. Neither do I pretend to be an anti-imperialist. I am a Canadian first, last and all the time." This confession could as readily have been made by any subsequent Canadian leader. Sir Robert Borden on accession to office was expected to reverse the policy of his predecesssor, and in agreeing to closer consultation with the British Government he partially did so. But throughout his premiership as a whole he was no less a nationalist than Laurier, and voiced with equal emphasis a policy of limited liability. Illustrative of the fact is his insertion in the abortive Anglo-Franco-American security treaty of 1919 a clause authorizing any dominion to exempt itself from the alliance, and hence from a war in which the other parties might be involved. In truth, Borden like Laurier merely upheld a national creed to which most Canadian leaders have subscribed.
In the endeavour to establish a Dominion navy, rather than give contributions of money to the imperial treasury, Laurier pursued a policy in harmony with his stand on other questions at the Conferences. He was convinced that national feeling would not tolerate the contribution of money for the British Admiralty to spend. " Shall Canada," asked the Globe, " hire a substitute to do her fighting? " From the point of view of imperial defence, Laurier's policy may have been mistaken. But it was a policy not unreasonable for a nationally conscious dominion to pursue. It is significant that the political opponents who criticised him most violently on the particularism of his naval scheme, a few years later in the crisis of the Great War no less strongly insisted on national recognition in the organization of the army in France. Sentiment in such matters is unlikely to be the monopoly of any one party.
Surveying broadly the development of Canadian policy in imperial and external affairs previous to 1914, the two facts which stand out most saliently are, the considerable freedom attained in the negotiation of commercial treaties and the consistent opposition to closer imperial organization. The development in the treaty power was understandable, since, as already pointed out, it was merely the necessary completion of self-government. But students of empire in Great Britain found more difficulty in understanding Canada's particularism - her unwillingness to assist in the tightening of imperial ties. Yet there is no mystery concerning it. Its explanation is mainly found in the jealousy of the self-governing spirit and the vitality of national sentiment, ever growing stronger with the exercise of political freedom. Canada was after all an empire in itself. The responsibility of developing vast territories and binding them together with railways challenged all the resources of the Federal Government, and it shrank from assuming the additional burdens of defence and foreign policy. It looked with suspicion upon any imperial centralization because such centralization might imply an encroachment upon the self-government so essential for internal development. A further factor of importance is the duality of the Canadian nation. While the English-speaking population may cherish with lively sentiment the Empire, the French Canadians look upon it in a more calculating temper. La Presse, during the South African war, stated an abiding reality, too often forgotten both in Canada and Great Britain: " We French-Canadians belong to one country, Canada; but the English-Canadians have two countries, one here and one across the sea". No policy of a Federal Government can be permanently successful which does not rest on the compounded sentiment of the two peoples, and that sentiment will never be exuberant in its imperialism. Rarely has it been better expressed than in the policy of Laurier, who adopted a middle ground satisfactory to reasonable men of both racial groups.
The Great War brought far-reaching changes in the external relations of Canada, largely because it brought a change in Canadians themselves. When the British Government declared war, Canada with the partial exception of Quebec unhesitatingly assumed with vigour the responsibilities of a belligerent. It has been said with some truth that the Second Battle of Ypres made the Canadians a new people. This and other events in which the Canadian troops won distinction created community pride, the mother of national sentiment. It made Canadians feel as never before that they deserved a place among the nations, and on the conclusion of the struggle the feeling found concrete expression. A community that buried 50,000 sons on the battlefields of France and Flanders had claims to make, especially a claim to that national status under the British Crown which Macdonald and Laurier had pictured as her destiny. The formal recognition of this status came with the Peace Settlement. But before that event Canada and the other Dominions had come to share a more active participation than before in the higher foreign policy. This was secured through representation on the Imperial War Cabinet, where their representatives met British ministers on a basis of virtual equality. Out of the Imperial War Cabinet the Peace Delegation of the Empire was recruited. But most important among the events of 1918 was Sir Robert Borden's vigorous contention that Canada required representation in the negotiations of peace separate from that of the British Empire Delegation. She could not be content with " a status inferior to that accorded to nations less advanced in development, less amply endowed with wealth, resources and population, no more complete in sovereignty and far less conspicuous in their sacrifice ".
Hence the arrangement whereby the chief Dominions had distinct delegations on a footing similar to such small states as Belgium, while at the same time their representatives constituted a part of the British Empire Delegation. The treaties were separately ratified for Canada by the Crown on approval by the Canadian Parliament. In virtue of her independent signature, the Dominion became a member of the League of Nations, where her representatives might act, and have acted, independently of those representing the Empire. Canada insisted on this recognition under the national sentiment aroused by the War. [ ]
Source: Alexander Brady, Canada, London, Ernest Benn Limited, 1932, 374p., pp. 327-331
© 2000 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College